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1847-1981 :

A thesis presented to the London School of Economics, University of London,
for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy, by Julia Twigg
©AUTUMN 1981 - Thesis Index

The author is now Professor of Social Policy and Sociology at Kent University, England, and has given permission for this previously unpublished thesis to be published on the IVU website. The ownership and copyright remain hers and no part of this thesis may be used elsewhere without her express permission.


[Numerical links are to the author's footnotes, use your back button to return to the same point in the text. Text links are to relevant items on the IVU website, all open in new windows]

Dress Reform and Naturism

Two movements in particular gave expression to the social implications of the state of the body - these were dress reform (1) and naturism.

Dress provides a fertile field for consideration by the vegetarians, for fashion epitomises the unnatural and artificial; it is one of the most obvious cases of the socially imposed. Furthermore it alters and even distorts the body, presenting it in accord with the dominant mode of the time. (This applies to all dress and not just to the more obvious case of women's fashions) It is also part of social hierarchy, indicating social status and acting as a counter in the game of social snobbery. At the core of dress reform's concerns was a desire to throw off these restrictions and falsenesses of dress. Ultimately there is no escape from fashion, and reformed dress acted as much as a badge of certain attitudes and as an expression of belonging to certain advanced circles, as it did any 'rational' solution. Like all aesthetic functionality, it never truly escaped style.

In the fight for women's rights, the right to move freely and unrestrainedly was important; thus feminist dress reformers attacked the corset not only for being damaging to health, but also for being restricting and for distorting a woman's natural shape. (2) Similarly the elaborate, trailing skirts which prevented active walking and demanded a carriage existence, and which it was argued were unhygienic, sweeping up the dirt of the streets, were also seen as part of an imprisonment of women, both actual and psychological. (3)

Carpenter pointed to the unhealthy and debilitating effects of modern dress, or rather overdress, in which people hide away from nature, muffled in clothes, frightened of the elements, and with this 'denial of nature comes every form of disease; first delicateness, daintiness, luxury; then imbalance, enervation, huge sensibility to pain'. (4) Clothes should be rougher and simpler he argued, and encourage a hardier body. Carpenter also wanted to abandon the elaborate fussiness of modern dress that required the constant attention of servants to press and launder, and the constant care of the wearer not to tear, disarrange or dirty. Above all, many exponents of the simple life believed that you should have clothes that you could do work in. The most radical attempt to find dress suitable for an active way of life took place at Whiteway; there the women cut their skirts short, and went bare legged and bare armed, while the men stripped to the waist and wore knickerbockers or shorts, This was outlandish dress for the period and caused much scandal in the neighbourhood.

Sandals had first been popularised in England by Carpenter; (5) and from his workbench at Willthorpe, the making of sandals spread to Letchworth and Whiteway, until they became the emblem of a certain sort of socialist simple lifer. Comfortable feet and the freedom to move your toes, in contrast to what Carpenter called 'leather coffins', were all part of the rejection of the cramping restrictions of society.

Dress reform also represented a hostility to the iron triviality of fashion and to its suggestion of woman's essential infirmity of purpose. Fashion, whose essence is to be ever shifting and whose demands, despite the fact that they are regarded as trivial, are yet impossible to ignore, exemplified just the sort of artificially created needs that the vegetarians sought to repudiate. One element in dress reform was an attempt to find some unchangingly beautiful or rational form of dress that would free the wearer from these concerns. Aesthetic dress with its flowing lines and soft colours had some of this aspect to it. (6) The desire for an unchanging dress led some of the more extreme reformers to adopt classical garb. (7) This tendency towards the radical redesigning of clothes was strongest among the Germans and reached British. circles largely through their contact with the Nakturkultur movement. (8)

The most famous of the dress reformers was Dr Jaeger. 'Health is fragrance, disease is stench', was his basic theme. (9) According to Jaeger the body gives off essences, the noxious ones of which are found also in all evil smelling things. The aim of his system was to encourage the body to give off these essences as vigorously as possible, and at the same time to prevent them gathering in the surrounding air and thus leading to self poisoning. Jaeger believed that substances divided into those in which evil odours were preserved - these were all vegetable substances like cotton, linen and wool - and those in which only the fragrant and beneficial ones congregated – these were undyed animal fibres, feathers, hair. Thus Jaeger insisted that health rested upon the exclusive use of woollen and animal fibres in clothing and furnishing. The action of rough wool on the skin further stimulated blood supply and thus promoted the exhalation of the noxious vapours, which could then pass through the woollen layers. The cotton or linen dresser trapped these vapours around his body and bathed in self poisoning. Furniture should also be of wool or metal, least the vapours gather in the upholstery or the unpainted wood. Sleeping with the windows open was strongly recommended, and light colours were preferred, dark ones trapping the poison. (10) The full Jaeger suit was a close fitting garment of undyed stockinette.

Jaeger's system was remarkably successful; and wool next to the skin became a watchword in advanced circles, and eventually permeated widely throughout society, revolutionising underwear. Shaw for one took it up, appearing in his one-piece yellowish wool suit like: 'a forked radish in a worsted bifurcated stocking'; (11) and it had a vogue in Fabian circles, some of whom became enthusiastic 'wool wearers'.

Jaeger's advocacy of animal products ran counter to vegetarian ideas, and caused conflict with certain leaders of the movement. (12) Despite this however, it is clear that many vegetarians became enthusiasts for his system. The main area of agreement according to Jaeger was the issue of noxious emanations. Like many vegetarians, Jaeger believed that the excrement of carnivores was more offensive than that of vegetarians, and since disease was stench, a vegetarian diet was an important way of reducing the noxious vapours generally. (13) The two movements were linked in their idea of bodily purity, in the belief in the virtues of fresh air and in appeals to nature. Health here was a question of cleansing, either by avoiding corrupting foods, by sweating off (Jaeger endorsed various form of water cure) or by exuding the poison through permeable fabrics.

The second movement that shared these concerns was naturism. During the late nineties the first influences from the German naturist movement began to be felt; a Naked Truth Society existed in England in 1892 and Carpenter was influential in advocating the benefits of wind and sun on the body. As yet the emphasis was on the emotional or hygienic benefits and on Romanticist ideas of direct contact with nature - social nudism tended to come later. The associations were strongly German, and Romance in his articles on German vegetarianism stresses its strong links with naturism, which he sees as less true of English vegetarianism. (14) The strongest links are through nature cure and books like Adolf Just's Return to Nature were influential with their pictures of sun and earth baths and of sleeping in the open air. Though references otherwise in the literature are slightly guarded, it is clear that sun and air baths were gaining popularity. Harold Begbie in his satire on the vegetarians, The Curious and Diverting Adventures of Sir John Sparrow, Bart, has his hero visit a gushing lady vegetarian, also a dress reformer and theosophist, who was an enthusiast for light and air baths. (15) As yet, however, 'sunbaths' – the word was still a singular one at the time - were highly eccentric and it was not until the inter-war years that the idea caught on widely.

In many of these ideas the vegetarians were clearly the heirs of Romanticism; though it is important to note here that the link is always with the, as it were, 'light' side of Romanticism - that concerned with transfiguration, joy and the beauties of nature, and dominated by the imagery of the sun – and with little or none of the darker preoccupations with death and excess. These different strands are illustrated here in the dramatic contrast between vegetarianism and the aestheticism of the nineties, (16) that other heir, in the period, of romanticism: thus the aesthetes sought out artifice and artificiality both in surroundings and society, in contrast to the vegetarian ideal of naturalness and simplicity; loved the costly and highly wrought, the glitter of jewels and brocade in contrast to homely materials and rough surfaces; sought out closed rooms, darkness and artificial light rather than sunshine and open air; favoured pale complexions, black clothes and illness rather than the fresh tanned healthfulness and light coloured clothing favoured by the vegetarians. In a similar way, though some of their spiritual ideas do overlap with the emerging occult, vegetarianism stops short of any of its darker, semi-satanist aspects. (17)

  1. 141. For dress reform generally, see Stella Mary Newton, Health, Art and Reason, 1974.
  2. 142. For vegetarian feminist comment, see Mary Gove Nichols, The Clothes Question Considered . . . 1878. See VM, Jan, 1896, p11, for arguments against corsets and tight boots.
  3. 143. Nellie Shaw, a keen dress reformer, wrote: 'We hope that never again will women allow themselves to be seduced from paths of simplicity or go back to the slavery of long, tight, unhygienic clothing', Whiteway, p114,
  4. 144. CCC, p27
  5. 145. He was sent a pair by Harold Cox, of the Tilford experiment, from Kashmir.
  6. 146. Aesthetic dress, though worn by some vegetarian ladies, for example Mrs Leigh Hunt Wallace, was often made from expensive and beautiful fabrics and lace, and had a more purely 'artistic' aspect to it.
  7. 147. N. Shaw, p111, for such at Whiteway. The Greek ideal had a wider currency in vegetarian circles, standing, for a society that celebrated bodily health and beauty, and that rejected sin and guilt.
  8. 148. Visits from reformers like Heinrich Scham were described, though the reporter in this case did wonder that anyone could have walked down Piccadilly so dressed. DR, Feb 1895, p7.
  9. 149. Gustav Jaeger, Dr Jaeger's Health Cure, 1887, p8. The book gives a general account of his ideas.
  10. 150. This preference for light coloured clothing occurs elsewhere; German reformed dress was nearly always white or cream. Sometimes it is connected with ideas of purity; for example Dr Kellogg at Battle Creek wore white suits and shoes to symbolise purity and cleanliness, which he linked also with his practice of total celibacy in his marriage. G. Carson, The Cornflake Crusade, 1959.
  11. 151. Frank Harris, quoted in S.M. Newton, p114.
  12. 152. The Danielite Star, Jan 1901, refers to a rival 'azoonic' clothing made from non-animal substances. Salt, though he found much fanciful in the system, recommended people to try the suits and to ignore the qualified nature of Jaeger's recommendation of vegetarianism, Food Reform Magazine, 1885, April/June, p103.
  13. 153. Jaeger did not believe that meat need be wholly eschewed, though vegetarianism was recommended for sedentary workers.
  14. 154. Romanes also believed that the German movement was in contrast to the British, essentially pagan in tone. VR, Jan 1897, p 67 . German vegetarianism has always had a strong health and nature-cure bias, and has been much less animal-minded than the English movement. American vegetarianism comes somewhere between the two.
  15. 155. 1902. Begbie had been a vegetarian and had edited a journal for Hills, but he reverted to meat-eating and wrote this novel which recounts the journey of an innocent abroad among the vegetarians. See Salt, Company I Have Kept, p141.
  16. 156. The classic statement of this is Huysmans'  A Rebours, 1891.
  17. 157. See M. Eliade, Occultism, Witchcraft and Cultural Fashions: Essays in Comparative Religions, 1976 for an account of the occult in the west since the late nineteenth century.

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